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9.26 pm

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): In the few moments remaining, I wish to welcome many aspects of the Bill and the changes that have been made to it since the Second Reading of the earlier Bill in March, in which I took part.

It is important that we remember that we only ever hear of the times when social services fail. We never hear when they are successful in placing children into care, providing good homes and ensuring that they are brought up in a loving family. It is of course right that we hear about the times when social services fail, because the consequences are so horrendous, and it is right that such cases should be investigated. However, we should also remember the many occasions when social services get it right and place children where they are brought up successfully.

I pay tribute to foster parents and the work that they do. In today's society, we must unfortunately think carefully about the damage done when a malicious accusation is made against a foster parent. Such accusations can take social services a long time to investigate—a point that has struck me particularly.

I ask the Minister to pay particular attention to the role of grandparents. They can have an important role in caring for their grandchildren, especially those who have been neglected or forced into the care of the local authority perhaps because of drug abuse by their parents. I find that I can go a long time without experiencing a case involving drug abuse and then suddenly I deal with two or three similar cases. I recently dealt with two distressing cases, which I outlined in March, and I do not intend to repeat the details today.

Time is short, but I wish to make one point to the Minister. Clause 2(6) mentions

I understand that the use of words such as "may", "possible" and "responsible" can be not wholly definitive. My point for the Minister is that local authorities should not be able to decide the level of support, because they will want to take many other issues into account. When grandparents take on the responsibility of bringing up children, they should receive an allowance, especially if they go the whole hog and become adoptive parents. The Bill is not clear enough on that point and I hope that the issue will be considered in Committee.

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I hope that when the Bill returns for Report and Third Reading it has been further improved. If that is the case, the Government will have done a great service to those many thousands of children who are at the moment in the care of local authorities but whom we would all like to see in the care of families.

9.29 pm

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): We have had an excellent and well informed debate, in which all right hon. and hon. Members have spoken with a great deal of personal experience. I feel greatly under-qualified to respond.

We appear to have no lack of recruits to the Special Standing Committee and the Standing Committee that will follow this part of the Bill's proceedings. The hon. Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey), a member of the Select Committee who has a great deal of experience in fostering and adoption, mentioned the need for clarification on placement orders and overturning parental consents. She said that any delay in the procedure prejudices the child's welfare.

The hon. Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman), another member of the Select Committee, welcomed the independent review mechanism in the Bill and said that the 40 per cent. target was perhaps ambitious. She questioned, quite rightly, the adequacy of the resources being rolled out in the longer term to finance it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), a highly qualified speaker on the subject and another member of the Select Committee, queried the thrust behind clause 1 and other early clauses. We will have a lot of fun and games debating those in Committee. He made helpful suggestions about when the appeals procedure should be triggered.

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), a former social worker, showed considerable understanding of the issue and then ruined it all by blaming the whole thing on 18 years of Tory rule. He almost redeemed himself by his pertinent references, echoed by other speakers, to the problems of private fostering.

The hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble), a member of an adoption panel in her previous career, said that we need to attract more suitable social workers. That point was echoed by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable).

My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) queried clause 50 and rightly said that the tests applied to the adoption order are different from those applied to a care order. He reinforced the need to flag up the threshold. He then went on to speak about other issues, which I will duck.

We then heard from the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn), another speaker with social work experience. As I said, I feel woefully inadequate in responding to the debate. She mentioned the need to bring the legislation up to date to make it compatible with the Children Act 1989.

The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) described the detailed extent of the problem. The hon. Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) gave a grisly catalogue of violence during contact visits. The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw), another person with great experience in social work and

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dealing with children, said how much time is wasted in the process, and that that needs to be addressed. My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) rightly flagged up the problems with sibling groups and consideration for birth parents. That point was echoed by the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan). Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) said, with characteristic succinctness, how right it was to mention the successes of social services. People never want to read newspaper stories about the plane that landed safely. That attitude also applies to social workers, because many cases go well. He also made a pertinent point about the role of grandparents, with which I am sure we will deal in Committee.

In the midst of the debate, we had an excellent maiden speech by my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon). He may lack the professional prestidigitational—

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North): What has taken him so long?

Tim Loughton: That has put me off. My hon. Friend may lack the professional prestidigitational qualifications of his predecessor but he shows immense early promise in keeping all his balls in the air at the same time, as one would expect from someone who lists his recreation as "words". Alas, we will not be seeing a recreation of the BBC chainsaw massacre that his predecessor attempted, but he started well with talk about the motorway link for Norwich. From a shopping list of concerns, early pleas for the transport infrastructure in one's constituency always go down well. With a name like Bacon, it is hardly surprising that he takes a close interest in agriculture.

It is always profitable territory to list and give a plug to some of the businesses in one's constituency and their products. So when my hon. Friend started talking about Bux Corrugated and Hamlin Electronics airbag sensors, I was a little confused until he mentioned Lotus and the prospect of a doggy bag. May I offer him a friendly word of advice and remind him at this early stage of the existence of the Register of Members' Interests? He will no doubt prove a worthy successor to John MacGregor, whom we all miss in this House.

The Bill is welcome on both sides of the House. It has been introduced belatedly—four and a half years after the Government came to power—and only after a friendly push last March from my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman). However, the Bill is good news. We know that because the Secretary of State is here in person: in contrast to the invisible man act of last week after the disastrous news about accident and emergency services when he was nowhere to be seen, refused to make a statement to the House and refused to debate with us head to head on the media. We are glad that today he is making up for his invisibility last week.

We welcome the Bill. We also welcome the use of a Special Standing Committee, a procedure that previously proved so useful in the form of a Special Select Committee. However, we do not welcome the Government's apparent need to timetable this complicated measure and we question why they are taking that course. We shall certainly vote against the programme motion.

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The sense of urgency for the Bill has been heightened by the current spate of cases involving the death of young children in terrible circumstances. The most high profile cases were, as we have heard, those of Victoria Climbie and of John Smith. He died in my constituency and until last Monday his parents were my constituents. He died in 1999 on Christmas eve from severe brain haemorrhaging, caused by blows like those normally seen on a battered boxer. He suffered 54 visible injuries at the hands of Simon and Michelle McWilliam, including adult bite marks and having his hair torn out.

The McWilliams were prospective adopters after that child had been for 17 months in the happy foster care of parents elsewhere. The McWilliams pulled the wool over the eyes of Brighton and Hove social services department during 20 home visits by social workers. Furthermore, the danger signs were not acted on by health service staff.

Last Monday, the McWilliams were sentenced to eight years each after an emotional jury foreman had delivered the guilty verdict. However, they were charged only with child cruelty. The weakness in the law is that they were not charged with murder or manslaughter because it was not possible to pin the blame on either one of them, despite the fact that Sussex police and the Crown Prosecution Service were satisfied that the child was murdered. The problems of joint enterprise in such cases must be tackled urgently by the Government.

Obviously, the social services department made mistakes and action is now being taken, but the subsequent report—released last Tuesday—highlighted claims from Mr. McWilliam's first two wives about his violent and cruel tendencies towards them and the children. It noted that he had changed his name twice and that Mrs. McWilliam had five police convictions. None of that was known to social services, but it was easily uncovered in the space of one hour by the author of the report.

A major consideration in the Bill, and relevant to those current cases, is the full and thorough investigation of the background and suitability of prospective adoptive parents. We need to examine those failures by social services. As I noted, Brighton and Hove has taken action and has been praised in reports elsewhere, but there are no excuses. Ministers are aware of the enormous pressures on social services departments throughout the country. I have mentioned previously the £1 billion standard spending assessment overspend and the fact that social services recruitment has fallen by 50 per cent. and that in London and in parts of the south-east vacancies are running at 30 per cent. in certain child care sections of social service departments. In this case, it is not good enough merely to take the "not me, Guv" approach of naming and shaming as the Secretary of State did, shamefully, at the social services conference in Harrogate 10 days ago.

When we scrutinise the Bill, it is essential to ensure that the system can cope with the additional responsibilities, duties and structures that will be placed on social services departments. We are all in favour of expanding the number of children who pass through the adoption system, but not at the expense of compromising the quality of the service available and the safeguards to be carried out.

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There are already questions about the adequacy of the ring-fenced funds supposedly attached to the many new requirements under the quality protects programme, for example, and about the adequacy of the funding for the operation of the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999 when it is eventually implemented. The Local Government Association has expressed legitimate concerns as to the availability of new funding for the increased work load that will be placed on social services, which are currently spending £1 billion above SSA as I pointed out.

We must ensure that there is proper resourcing for the pre-adoption and post-adoption support services, which represent such an important part of the Bill. We must ensure that we take account of the differential pressure on those local authority social services departments that are deemed to be under-performing and where their pool of prospective adoptee children have more complex physical, behavioural or ethnic characteristics.

We fully concur with the need to address the logjam in adoptions, to increase the numbers adopted each year and to speed the process for babies in particular. The current average of two years and nine months waiting time for looked-after children is far too long. We are constantly reminded that, in 1970, 20,000 children, no less, were given up for adoption in this country, whereas in 1999, the figure was some 4,100—barely 20 per cent. of that 30 years ago. But the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State tell us that, by using public service agreements, they want the number of adoptions from looked-after children to increase by 40 per cent. or, ideally, 50 per cent.

That is all very well, but it needs to be handled sensitively and we must not validate a system which falls into the usual trap under this Government of setting targets for everything and priorities for nothing—all the more crucial with adoption, where the slavish adherence to targets could result in social service authorities that approach the year end having fallen behind on their target average fast-tracking certain less appropriate adoptions without the necessary quality controls, purely to spruce up the figures.

As we have heard, the circumstances have changed dramatically since 1970. The 1960s represented the high-water mark of the dash for adoption, and babies were usually snatched away from teenage single mothers, amid a culture of institutionalised opprobrium. We must never return to that climate of Victorian taboos. Similarly, we need to dismantle the insidious forces of political correctness that have put obstacles in the way of perfectly good adoptive parents being given the opportunity to offer a stable home to vulnerable children on the irrational grounds of age, weight, being smokers or because of the ethnic compatibility test.

The nature of the adopted children has also changed dramatically in those years. They tend to be older children with a history of more complex disabilities or behavioural problems, and there are particular pressures in finding placements for sibling groups, as we have heard from various hon. Members. The pool of prospective adopters has shrunk because they have been put off by the PC brigade and because other ways of producing a family exist through IVF and other means. However, it is essential and right that at the heart of the Bill is the overriding consideration that the welfare of the child is paramount. That will achieve consistency with the Children Act 1989 and mean that the welfare checklist is applied.

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In scrutinising this technical Bill, with its 135 clauses and 6 schedules, we shall seek clarification of much of the detail. We would like to have further detail on the test of paramountcy over reasonableness, as my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) has mentioned, and on the need to avoid deterring struggling parents from seeking outside help if there is a heightened risk of unsought adoption. We should consider the timing of permanent placement decisions following on from children being looked after, because the quality of the test is much more important than the length of the delay.

We will want to consider the workings of the welcome addition of the appeals panels, who sits on them and at which stages of the adoption process they kick in. We will also want to know what form the extra support services for adopters and adoptees will take and the availability of proper training for the people involved.

What will happen to a social services department that is deemed to be failing in its adoption targets? What about the mechanics of the proposed special guardianship status as an alternative to adoptions, and how does it relate to target setting? We will also want to consider the need to allow the voluntary sector to continue to play a full and important role and not to encroach further on the generosity of voluntary adoption agencies, which currently subsidise adoption services to the tune of £3.5 million a year and provide 20 per cent. of the placements.

No doubt, we will return to the ubiquitous problem of the respective balance of rights between the adopted child, the adoptive parents, the birth family and the rights of disclosure of information to each. No doubt, in all our deliberations, the paramountcy of the common-sense approach will be frequently scuppered by the requirements of the European convention on human rights.

We welcome the strengthened penalties on unauthorised intercountry adoptions. It is absolutely right to clamp down on cases involving internet twins, for example, but we shall be interested to discover how the Secretary of State plans to regulate hyperspace in that respect. So the Special Standing Committee has a lot of work to do—this is a big technical issue.

The Secretary of State said earlier that it is not up to politicians to determine the suitability of adoptions, but it is up to the House to provide a clear framework and workable guidelines that enable those at the sharp end and in the courts to make the right decisions. Those decisions should be less open to challenge, more likely to speed the adoption process and make the welfare of the child paramount, without the complication added by some of the macho PC nonsense displayed by the Liberal spokesman earlier this evening.

As we come to the end of our deliberations, we need to make the difficult job of adoption easier for the dedicated band of adopters in this country who give vulnerable children improved life chances, as the Secretary of State put it. I look forward to the constructive progress of the Bill. We shall support its Second Reading.

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